Your first thoughts, naturally, are for the parents, Lonise Bias and her husband James, aching as they get ready to bury a second son long before his time. One son lost to drugs, another to wanton gunshots. Like the Kennedys, the Biases are a modern American tragedy, though theirs is not the tragedy of the powerful, but the powerless -- their sons claimed by the senseless agonies of urban America.
Your next thoughts go to the older brother, Len, everybody's all-American, a gifted young man with a soaring talent and, we assumed, a golden future. The University of Maryland's Len Bias. Even now we will close our eyes and see him in his singular moment of triumph, jauntily putting on that Boston Celtics cap and ascending the stage in New York City as NBA Commissioner David Stern calls his name. Len Bias, smiling as bright as the star he surely would be. Though it is Jay Bias who now lies dead, it is Len Bias we see, Len Bias who haunts us still. Even now we can hear Brian Tribble's trembling voice pleading with the police on the 911 line to get there soon: "This is Len Bias. You've got to get him back to life."
So much has changed at College Park since that fateful June day in 1986. One university chancellor, two athletic directors, two basketball coaches and a football coach, all gone, directly and indirectly, because of Bias. Yet, in a sense, nothing has changed at all. The front page headline announcing that Jay Bias had been shot sent a shiver straight to the heart of the College Park campus. Though he never went to Maryland, Jay Bias is a part of its extended family. His loss is its pain. "There is a disbelief," said Mike Anderson, who played football and basketball for Maryland. "How can two kids from the same family die like that?" he wondered as he sat in the stands of Cole Field House yesterday, staring blankly out at the court Len Bias once roamed, searching in vain for the answer.
Andy Geiger, the Maryland AD for two brief months, pressed his hand to his head to push back the strain. "Doesn't it remind us that we can't forget, that we ought not forget?" he said softly. "While there's a need to go on, we can't ever disconnect from that tragedy, nor should we." Geiger spoke of the isolation and "siege mentality" at Maryland these last four years, and said: "This place was like a castle with a moat around it." He would not shrink from the coupling of Jay and Len. He would throw open the window and let the air rush where it chose. As a parent, Geiger's first empathy was with the Biases. As an AD he understood the impact on his institution. "Part and parcel of the Bias tragedy belongs to Maryland. We'll always have the Len Bias story as part of our athletic story. It's part of our heritage. There is no 'over.' "
Four years ago, students haphazardly gathered at Cole, many of them weeping openly, drawn there out of respect for Len Bias, seeking to capture one last memory of his thunderous talent and press it to their hearts. Understandably, there was no such assembling for Jay, but the student newspaper, The Diamondback, acknowledged the link with the headline: Younger Bias Gunned Down. And throughout the campus the buzz was about the Bias family, the stunning repetition of their tragedy, and the heartbreakingly violent world of young black men.
Vernon and Randy Green, two Howard students sitting in Cole waiting for a friend, shook their heads sorrowfully. "I'm sure everybody felt the same way when they heard about Jay," Vernon said, "that it's part of Lenny."
"A teenager loses his life," Randy said in resignation. "A mother loses her son. As black people, we lose another brother through unnecessary violence. . . . It's so easy to get a gun. It's too easy, too easy." Randy looked up and regarded the man writing in a notebook. "You can get automatic weapons on the street. You can get a gun today, most definitely."
They talked about the ocean of guns out there, "armor" in the vernacular, how young men, as young as high schoolers, pride themselves on being "armored," on carrying "burners." Randy explained: "If someone says he'll 'burn' you, it means he'll shoot you."
The shooting goes on all the time. This one was a young man riding in a red Toyota 4Runner allegedly being shot by another young man driving a green Mercedes. No one is surprised at the shootings. They are accepted as the routine end to the short flashy life cycle of urban America.
"People will shoot you over anything," Vernon said, frightened at the crazy prospect. "There are no fistfights anymore. People just shoot you now."
Mike Anderson was a freshman when Len Bias was a senior. He remembers well how "the whole campus revolved around him -- he was that big a star." And he remembers well how "devastating" it was to learn of his death. These past four years have been onerous for Maryland athletics. "Ever since Len's death our whole athletic program has gone through terrible turmoil," he said. "We haven't rebounded fully yet." Wincing, Anderson said, "Jay's death is going to rehash all those bad feelings."
There was a time, not so long ago, when athletes were immune to this kind of manic violence, when they were protected by people in the neighborhood who warned the roughnecks to stay clear of the athletes, to give them immunity. Now the opposite is true. Now athletes are often the targets. The sharpies seek to befriend them and corrupt them.
Living in the real world, Anderson wasn't surprised that Jay Bias's life ended in a hail of gunfire, just "very, very sad. . . . There's a madness out there. A friend of mine was driving near Union Station last year. Another driver cut him off. My friend was angry, and he drove up to the guy and had words with him. The guy pulled out a gun and shot my friend dead.
"It's not about being tough or being able to take care of yourself anymore, because anybody can shoot you. You can't fight. You have to walk away. You can't retaliate. It doesn't end there. He'll see you again. He'll remember." Anderson got up to leave and pulled his coat tight. It was bitter cold outside. "I play basketball and football, so maybe I'm tough. But I'm not tougher than a bullet."